The heavens aligned when Alfred Lunt (1892-1977) and Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983) met in New York in 1917. Fontanne, an established actor from England, had made her Broadway debut the previous year; Lunt was building an impressive résumé of smaller parts on Boston and Manhattan stages. Introduced by mutual friends, the two formed a close friendship, working together for the first time in 1919’s Made of Money. They were married in 1922.
Enamored of each other’s talents, the two resolved never to work apart again. For the rest of their lives, they negotiated joint contracts, and appeared in 27 plays together over four decades. Perhaps the duo’s most beloved performance, and certainly their most enduring, was in the 1935 production of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
The play, in which a suitor tries to “tame” his boisterous soon-to-be bride, was a perfect fit for Lunt and Fontanne’s large personalities. Arnold Saint-Subber, a young stage manager working on their production, became fascinated with the pair, and he took meticulous note of how Fontanne shouted and smashed instruments and crockery while in character, and how she and Lunt would snipe at each other off-stage, critiquing each other’s performances as though they were the bitterest of rivals. As he dodged dishes and helped settle skirmishes, an idea grew in the stage manager’s head: in 1947, having successfully become a Broadway producer, Saint-Subber worked the famous actors’ squabbles into a musical.
Saint-Subber and partner Lemuel Ayers approached Sam and Bella Spewack, another creative couple known for fiery tempers, to write the book. Bella brought Cole Porter to the team as composer and lyricist, and the rest was history: opening in 1948, critics hailed Kiss Me, Kate as “the best [musical] in the world,” and it became the recipient of the first ever Tony Award for Best Musical.
Mirroring Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne’s lives, Kiss Me, Kate follows the making of a production of Shrew by actor and director Fred Graham and his co-star and ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi. The musical is littered with references to the on- and-off-stage foibles that inspired it: in the 1935 production, Fontanne opened the show by shooting a bird with a blunderbuss gun, echoed in Kate’s Act 1 finale. At one point, Lilli shoves sausages down the front of her dress, just as Fontanne did in Shrew. And of course, Lunt and Fontanne’s infamous spanking scene in 1935’s production has become a pivotal moment in the musical.
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne brought once-in-a-lifetime charisma and energy to the stage. One moment, they’d be screeching; the next, kissing to make up. This frenetic and inspirational pacing, forever immortalized in Kiss Me Kate, has had tremendous and lasting impact, and its shining, slapdash spirit is a fitting gift from two of America’s treasured theatre artists.